Guillermo Kahlo: More Than Frida's Father

Editorial Feature

By Google Arts & Culture

Self-portrait (0) by Guillermo KahloMuseo Frida Kahlo

A look at the German-Mexican photographer's architectural imagery

Everyone knows the name Frida Kahlo, but not many are familiar with that of her father, Guillermo Kahlo. A prolific photographer, Guillermo was a creative in his own right as well as being an important influence on Frida, helping his daughter find her artistic roots and being her number one cheerleader throughout her life. He specialized in photographing landscapes and buildings and interiors—giving his work a legacy of historic important for its documentation of how Mexico City looked in the early 20th century.

Despite the Spanish-sounding name, Guillermo was of German descent. He was born Carl Wilhelm Kahlo in 1871, later adopting the name Guillermo (the Spanish equivalent of Wilhelm) when he made Mexico his home at the age of 20. After growing up in Pforzheim in the German Empire and studying at the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg, he was sent to Mexico by his father in 1891. Guillermo’s mother had died, and his father had remarried to a woman that Guillermo did not get on with—a trip across the world seemed like the best solution. Luckily Guillermo fell in love with Mexico and he applied for Mexican citizenship in 1894, never returning to Germany again.

Self-portrait (1920) by Guillermo KahloMuseo Frida Kahlo

In Mexico, Guillermo held a few different jobs, finding work in businesses run by other German immigrants, but it was through his love life that he ended up discovering his passion for photography. Two years after leaving Germany, he married a Mexican woman called María Cardena and had two daughters, but sadly his wife passed away shortly after giving birth to their second child. He remarried when he was 26 to Matilde Calderón, who he met in the jewelry shop where they both worked and the couple welcomed five children into the world, including Frida. It was through Matilde that he began the career he would pursue for the rest of his life: his new father-in-law worked in photography, and Matilde encouraged Guillermo to try his hand at it.

Frida Kahlo's parents: the German photographer Guillermo Kahlo and Matilde Calderón, from Oaxaca (21 de febrero de 1898) by Autor no identificadoMuseo Casa Estudio Diego Rivera y Frida Kahlo

Matilde, Adriana, Frida and Cristina Kahlo (1916) by Guillermo KahloMuseo Frida Kahlo

Guillermo found his calling and devoted the rest of his life to the field. He set up a photographic studio in 1901 and shot images for the El Mundo Ilustrado and Semanario Ilustrado, a newspaper and an illustrated weekly respectively. His innate skills and dedication to quality led him to be hired by the Mexican government to catalogue the country’s Colonial-period architecture. He became known as the “first official photographer of Mexico’s cultural patrimony.” The photos were used to illustrate publications that commemorated the 1910 centenary of Mexico’s independence from Spain.

Guillermo’s business thrived and he was able to buy some land and build a house in Coyoacán in Mexico City, which would later be known famously as La Casa Azul. Later Guillermo's prominent reputation won him a commission to produce architectural photographs of churches for a six-volume survey in the 1920s, which you can see below. These photographs were integral in documenting the layout and building design of the time.

Organo de la Epístolal en la Catedral de México (1907-1911) by Guillermo KahloFototeca Nacional, INAH

El Sagrario de México (1904) by Guillermo KahloFototeca Nacional, INAH

Retablos del presbiterior de la Iglesia de la Eseñanza (1907-1911) by Guillermo KahloFototeca Nacional, INAH

Cúpula interior de la Iglesia de Santa Teresa la Antigua (ca. 1907) by Guillermo KahloFototeca Nacional, INAH

Altar mayor de la iglesia de San Francisco Acatepec (ca. 1913) by Guillermo KahloFototeca Nacional, INAH

Guillermos photographic style was austere and unemotional, and he was a man of fixed schedules and solitary habits. He was affectionate with all his daughters, who nicknamed him “Herr Kahlo” for his stern demeanor, but none more than Frida, saying of her "she is the most like me". They had a close bond not only sharing the same dark brown eyes and sharp intellect, but also similar experiences with debilitating illness. They mutually cared for each other through difficult times: her when she suffered from polio as a child and recovered from a tram accident at the age of 18; and he when he suffered from the epileptic seizures he was prone to.

During her childhood, Frida helped him develop his photographs in the dark room and he taught her how to use a camera and re-touch photos. Frida followed a different artistic path, and Guillermo admired her ability to invent images in her mind and transfer them onto a canvas. He wrote regularly when Frida was in Detroit and also took photos of the construction of Frida and Diego’s house to send them updates on its progress. His images of the Juan O’Gorman-designed house were taken with a panoramic 135 degree lens to allow him to capture a wider expanse of the property.

Frida Kahlo's House-Studio (1° de agosto de 1932) by Guillermo KahloMuseo Casa Estudio Diego Rivera y Frida Kahlo

First floor, interior of Diego Rivera's House-Studio (1932) by Guillermo KahloMuseo Casa Estudio Diego Rivera y Frida Kahlo

Southwestern facade of Diego Rivera's House-Studio (31 de julio de 1932) by Guillermo KahloMuseo Casa Estudio Diego Rivera y Frida Kahlo

Diego Rivera's House-Studio (31 de julio de 1932) by Guillermo KahloMuseo Casa Estudio Diego Rivera y Frida Kahlo

Guillermo passed away in 1941 at the age of 69. Ten years after his death, a still-heartbroken Frida commemorated her father in a portrait. In the background you can see his beloved photographic equipment and below a garland reads:

I painted my father Wilhelm Kahlo, of Hungarian-German origin, professional artist/photographer, whose nature was generous, intelligent, and polite. He was courageous, having suffered from epilepsy for sixty years, but he never stopped working and he fought against Hitler. Adoringly, his daughter Frida.

Portrait of my Father Wilhelm Kahlo (1952) by Frida KahloMuseo Frida Kahlo

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